Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: Democratizing OSINT – University-Based Lessons on Diversity and Inclusion

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: Democratizing OSINT – University-Based Lessons on Diversity and Inclusion

[Sylvanna M. Falcón is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also the director of the Dolores Huerta Research Center for the Americas and the Human Rights Investigations Lab.] 

[Alexa Koenig is an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, a lecturer at the School of Journalism, and co-director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. She co-founded HRC’s Investigations Lab and is co-author of the forthcoming book Graphic: Trauma and Meaning in our Online Lives.]

[Sofia Kooner is the Investigations Lab Coordinator at UC Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center.]

[Jess Peake is the Director of the International and Comparative Law Program and Assistant Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law. She founded the Promise Institute’s Digital Human Rights Investigations Lab.]

[Alexa Koenig, Sylvanna M. Falcón and Jess Peake co-founded the UC Network on Human Rights and Digital Fact-Finding with HRC Lab Director Stephanie Croft in 2021.]

Digital open source investigations have been lauded for their potential to bring the experiences, perspectives, and interests of those most impacted into political and social narratives of conflict–as well as to ensure that such frontline stakeholders help drive accountability and other justice efforts. Concurrently, the field of practice has been overly-represented by investigators who come from the global North; who are white, male, European/Americans; and who are relatively economically secure compared to the broader populations on which they are reporting. This can have serious repercussions not only for which incidents are investigated and reported on and thus receive global attention, but also how those incidents are investigated. 

These demographic disparities are also reflected in the field of international criminal justice more generally, which has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. To counter this imbalance, the ICC launched its first-ever “Strategy on Gender Equality and Workplace Culture” at their annual Assembly of States Parties in December 2022–the first ever implemented by an international court or tribunal. In early 2023, a woman became president of the International Bar Association for only the second time in more than 75 years. Of course, such disparities are not exclusive to gender but exist around other aspects of identity, such as age, race, ethnicity and ability, as well as where those aspects intersect.

In 2016, the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, established the Human Rights Investigations Lab, working closely with and training students from a range of disciplines and backgrounds in open source investigation methods. The Dolores Huerta Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz followed in 2019 and then the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law in 2021. Collectively, our organizations form the University of California Network for Human Rights and Digital Fact-Finding. 

We opened our investigations labs, in part, to create a pipeline of early career professionals trained in online investigations to help meet the growing demand for digital research skills. Our students are well-trained in the power of new forms of information to strengthen fact-finding for legal accountability purposes, with a sensitivity to holistic security and other ethical and practical issues. Perhaps most importantly, we have deliberately designed the labs to attract and support a demographically rich cohort of students, which has the potential to shift power relations in professional spaces and improve representation in relevant fields, such as technology, journalism, and law.

In this essay, we outline the strategies we have used to attract, engage, mentor and support the professional development of these cohorts of students, so that they feel prepared and empowered when entering the workplace.

Acknowledging Institutional Power Relations 

The open source investigations community can and should not ignore how power operates within and around institutions. The exercise of power is not automatically negative, but is a problem when used to silence, undermine, or otherwise counter the culture we’re trying to build–one that supports students doing psychologically, emotionally and politically charged work, and that encourages thoughtful risk-taking to advance innovation in ways that are sensitive to ethics and human rights considerations.

So what is power? According to sociologist Max Weber, power is the ability to overcome others’ resistance to a particular process or outcome. Robert Dahl, in the 1950s, explained that power relationships include “A [having] power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Bachrach and Baratz extended this conception in the early 1960s, adding that power can also be exercised by “preventing B from doing what she wants to do.” According to them, in order to identify the exercise of power, scientists must not only map whose interests prevail, but what decisions are not made and why. In the 1970s, a “radical” conception of power was offered by political and social theorist Steven Lukes, who argued that power dynamics can be at work even in situations where B willingly does what A desires, but where B’s apparent desires, interests and even beliefs are in tension with their “objective, real interests.” 

A fourth conception is offered by Michel Foucault, who rejects the idea that power is tied to relationships between A and B at all; instead, he has argued that power is tied to peoples’ agency: their ability to formulate desires and goals and to act freely. As Peter Digeser has helpfully summarized in his seminal article “The Fourth Face of Power,” “[u]nder the first face of power the central question is, ‘Who, if anyone, is exercising power?’ Under the second face, ‘What issues have been mobilized off the agenda and by whom?’ Under the radical conception, ‘Whose objective interests are being harmed?’ [While u]nder the fourth face of power the critical issue is, ‘what kind of subject is being produced?’” All four of these “faces” are reflected in digital open source investigations, where a demographically limited cohort of investigators may develop the still relatively rare skill sets needed to excel in the online investigations space. An even smaller group may decide which situations are worthy of investigation (and by elimination, whether conscious or unconscious, which are not), and how and where to look. How these decisions are made, and who gets to make them, becomes an important consideration, especially for investigations teams grounded in human rights, who are duty-bound to uphold and to respect the inherent dignity of every participant.

The Meaning of Diversity & Institutionalizing Support for Students 

Each of our labs assemble varied research teams to work on projects with partner organizations, recognizing that diversity strengthens the capacity of our teams to engage in research with thoughtfulness to language, culture and context and across a range of identity characteristics, including gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, sexual-orientation, socio-economic background, and ability, recognizing that many of these categories are intersectional. While the University of California is a relatively elite academic institution, its public mission ensures that a high percentage of students are low-income and/or the first in their families to go to college. We are particularly interested in recruiting those students to introduce them to new career paths and offer dedicated mentoring. 

During recruitment, we aim to demystify research and signal through the process that prior research experience is not a requirement to successful participation in the labs. Recruitment begins several months prior to the start of a semester and includes reaching out to colleagues in various academic departments, in ethnic resource centers, and to the students already affiliated with our centers or partner units on campus to advertise the opportunity.

We strive to assemble teams that are multi-disciplinary, drawing undergraduate and graduate students from different fields, such as computer science, sociology, legal studies, law, journalism and ethnic studies, among other majors or degrees, who may not otherwise encounter each other during their academic journey, and who bring a rich array of research methods and perspectives to investigations. 

The result is that many of our lab students are women of color with lived experiences in the regions we investigate. These students impact perspectives about injustice and diversify processes for engaging in research, innovatively contributing new approaches to the work. They bring creativity in designing and interrogating research questions, many vital language competencies, and personal dedication to the investigations and to their teams.

Concurrently, these personal connections to the investigations can bring up past trauma and/or make them more vulnerable to secondary or vicarious trauma. Within the labs, we raise awareness of how their identities may inform their reactions to this work, in ways that protect and in ways that may make them more vulnerable. Our labs’ curricula introduces all students to resiliency initiatives to help them approach their investigations in a way that protects their psyche and so they can continue their work sustainably. We also provide opportunities for individual and community care. The nature of digital investigations can be isolating and dissociative, so it is vital that new and returning students are taught to recognize when they are being negatively affected by the work. This initiative, in part, functions as a retention model for underrepresented students to continue not only in the labs, but also continue in the human rights field.

Thanks to our resiliency initiatives and focus on generating an inclusive environment, students in our labs continue to work with us year after year, with an incredibly low attrition rate. This allows our students to grow their skills and participate in peer-to-peer learning in a collaborative environment. 

Building External Partnerships 

In our labs, students work with external community partners on digital investigations. Collaborating with non-university partners benefits the students tremendously as they are able to begin to build their own professional networks at a relatively early stage of their careers. We draw upon our existing professional networks to form these partnerships and we are intentional about selecting prospective partners who are strong communicators, are open to working in close collaboration with our teams, and understand the expectations when working with students. We conclude partnerships if it becomes evident the working relationship is not mutually rewarding. 

Not all external partners are the right fit for working with students, even if their work aligns with a human rights mission that resonates with us and the students. Ultimately, we aspire to give students a real-world research experience coupled with a vibrant learning environment. This necessitates working with an organizational partner that can give clear directions, be open for feedback from the students on how to improve workflow, and be willing to answer questions as the students build upon their research skills. Through our experience, we have been able to clarify our own needs as research labs on what makes a successful partnership and how best to support student engagement and learning. 

Advanced students often work in pairs with human rights organizations with little intervention from lab staff, helping to cement those professional relationships. The labs also provide unique opportunities for students to receive bi-lines and other crediting on media outputs and publish in academic papers or present at conferences that are generally not otherwise accessible to undergraduate students. Post-graduation, students have access to the labs’ external networks and are equipped with well-developed open source investigation skills, making them first in line for emerging job opportunities. Many of our partners have been eager recruiters of our students when they graduate, reflecting the frequently-positive working relationships that such a model fosters.


Launching these labs has been both an exhilarating and a humbling process. We have learned so much alongside the broader community of practice, and we have learned so much from our students, who have been generous in sharing their thoughts and experiences as they enter this community. We are fortunate to be based in an academic environment, where social sciences and social impact can come together to craft a vision for the future. Hopefully, some of what we have learned will contribute to the broader but still relatively nascent conversation around identity and digital open source investigations.

The field of digital open source investigations is at an exciting inflection point, arguably becoming more self-aware. Emerging standards and collective norms are helping to counter challenges like human and machine biases; to safeguard concepts like due process; to strengthen holistic security; and to work towards making the field a more inclusive–and ultimately more impactful–space. As we grow and mature as a community of practice, we must not only think about the democratizing potential of the content we are working with, and whose perspectives are reflected in open source investigations, but the democratic potential inherent in who gets the opportunity to do this work in the first place. We are heartened by seeing our graduates leave our institutions to join incredible teams at places like the New York Times, Bellingcat, Media Matters, the United Nations, and elsewhere, further diversifying those workplaces and industries in the process. Ultimately, we know ensuring access to acquiring digital research skills across diverse demographics will ensure that the field maximizes its creative and inclusive capabilities.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.